Chrissie Wellington is one of the most dominant female ironman triathletes to ever compete. I’ve never followed competitive triathlon very closely, but stumbled upon her autobiography “A Life Without Limits: A World Champion’s Story” and was intrigued. Within the first few chapters, it became clear that her personality was the same strong-willed, stubborn, determined and perfectionist one that I have had my whole life. Just the same personality that so many runners and endurance athletes have and MUST have to be successful or find joy in endurance sports.
Like so many athletes with a drive for perfection and a zero-tolerance policy of their own “weaknesses”, Chrissie went through years of struggling with disordered eating. She started with bulimia in high school which lasted throughout her college years. She gained weight while traveling after college then returned home and found herself running lots of miles and obsessively restricting food. She struggled with anorexia until her family took a hard step of stepping in. She got some tough love from her brother about the effects that her disorder was having on everyone around her and called it “selfish”. I think it’s a great thing for any runner to read, regardless of if you’ve struggled with disordered eating or have inevitably been on a team with someone who has.
Below are a few quotes from Chrissie’s book:
“It’s a control thing. I am a control freak, basically. Which is good and bad. If there is something you don’t like about your life, then to me it is perfectly possible and logical to change it. That’s the good side. The bad side is that hideous feeling of panic and anger when you come up against something you can’t control. And then there is the danger that the idea of being in control itself gets out of control, so that it becomes an end in itself and causes you to lose sight of everything else. Addiction might be another way of putting that.
I have an addictive personality. Sport is my drug of choice these days. It’s one of the best drugs there is. it keeps you fit and healthy, even if, in the case of ironman, it pushes your body to the limit. The word “addiction” comes with negative connotations, but it doesn’t have to be a damaging impulse. It’s all about channeling your craving into something positive. Family, friends and coaches are invaluable sources of objectivity, able to know you in a way you can never know yourself—from the outside— and able to look out for signs of negative addiction that you may be unable to recognize. But in time you get to know yourself, and with a better understanding of yourself comes the ability to modulate the highs and lows. More of the control, less of the freak.
I love my body now, not because I like what I see in the mirror particularly, more because I know longer look in the mirror and see just contours of flesh and color, there to be scrutinized and manipulated. Now I see my body as a holistic system that enables me to do what I do. More importantly, I see it bound up intricately with me, enabling me to be who I am. That change has been a gradual one, but it is sport that helped me initiate it and certainly consolidate it. Which is strange—or maybe it’s not—because, as much as I have always adored sport, it used to be the one area of m life where I’d let myself off the drive for self improvement. It was simply a way of making friends, which is its beauty, no matter how good you are at it.
“My hair grew dry and then started to fall out. I smothered it with conditioner. Downy hair, meanwhile, started to grow on my body. My periods stopped. I knew I was too thin, but I couldn’t escape from what I was doing. I wanted to be rid of the chokehold it had on me. It’s so mentally draining. Eating less may start as a means to an end, but in an anorexic it soon takes over as the end itself. You lose perspective. Yes, on some level I knew I was too thin, but you don’t realize just how bad you look. In a mirror, you don’t see what everyone else sees. Concerned friends might tell you you’re looking thin, but that’s exactly what an anorexic wants to hear. When people said it to me, I just thought, “Great!”
“I still have to learn to be kinder to myself. Those days at the end of my master’s were a watershed for me in that respect, as in many others, but I have never quite shaken off that tendency to be self-critical. Indeed, it is less that I need to tolerate my weaknesses, and more that I need to realize that what I’m berating myself for isn’t actually weakness at all. I have an illogical conception of what weakness is. If I lose a race, that is weakness; if I have a bad training session, that is weakness. For me, anything short of perfection is weakness.”
Now I see my body as a holistic system that enables me to do what I do. More importantly, I see it bound up intricately with me, enabling me to be who I am.
This quote is the goal. Gaining holistic health. Recovering from disordered eating isn’t about getting to a healthy weight. It’s about getting to a healthy weight and looking in the mirror and being ok and happy with what you see. Without the desire to change it or use your body as a vessel for your control and power.
Chrissie Wellington is one of many amazing women to admire for her strength in overcoming the disorder that manifests as a result of the obsessive and driven personality traits that make athletes who they are. I highly suggest this book.